Secrecy Surrounding MBREDC Projects Wearing Thin
By Paul Gable
Secrecy continuing to surround MBREDC projects in Horry County is starting to wear thin with some council members.
Two Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation projects took up most of the time during a meeting of Horry County Council Tuesday night. Of course, most of the discussion about Project Blue and Project AF took place behind closed doors in executive session, which is standard operating procedure for the EDC.
Council member Gary Loftus and council chairman Tom Rice tried to give excuses for the secret sessions, citing such things as the need to keep information secret in order to maintain a negotiating edge and council members were elected by the public to make these kinds of decisions.
However, not all council members agreed.
Council member Paul Price said, “We need to have as much sunshine on these projects as possible.”
Council member Jody Prince said, “It’s difficult to go back to my constituents and tell them I’m spending their money in the back room.”
John Bonsignor, addressing council during public input, said, “There must be some sunlight. The public has a right to know what is happening. By meeting behind closed doors, it doesn’t give a good feeling to me.”
The vote to go into executive session to discuss Project AF and Project Blue was 6-4 with Prince, Price, Harold Worley and Marion Foxworth voting no. Council members Paul Prince and Al Allen were absent from the meeting.
When council returned to public session, two ordinances relating to Project AF were approved in second reading by an 11-1 vote after a short public discussion about the project.
Worley was the lone dissenter. He explained his opposition by saying he does not support buying jobs. “If we’re going to give a tax break to this company, it’s an existing company in Horry County, we should give tax breaks to all businesses in the county,” Worley said. “It’s fundamentally wrong to buy jobs.”
According to information from EDC CEO Brad Lofton, Project AF will provide 79 new jobs in the county within 36 months. For that, it will receive a 50 percent reduction in property tax, a total of $600,000 across the 20 year span of the agreement.
How many companies in Horry County would like a $30,000 per year tax reduction for the next 20 years? How many deserve one just for the asking?
What was discussed about Project Blue behind closed doors was not mentioned in public. Prior to the executive session, Rice said negotiations were ongoing with Project Blue officials.
Project Blue was initially scheduled for third reading of an ordinance to approve county general obligation debt in the amount of $8 million as a portion of the overall $24 million of public funding being offered to project officials. This truly is an attempt to buy jobs as Worley said.
Why, if negotiations are ongoing, was third reading scheduled for Tuesday night’s council meeting until a revised agenda was issued at the end of the business day Friday eliminating Project Blue from the agenda?
The secrecy of Project Blue and the bum’s rush to get final council approval, even though there is no contract between Project Blue officials and AT&T for call center services, is definitely suspicious. Could it be the local connection?
Could the real reason for Project Blue’s secrecy be to keep hidden from the public the identity and number of the members on the EDC board who stand to gain financially from contracts on pieces of the project?
Another question would be how many of these EDC board members, who have the possibility of financial gain, are also significant contributors to the Tom Rice for Congress campaign? Have they also promised financial support in upcoming council elections in a de facto quid pro quo for approval of the project?
The talk on the street among the business community is not flattering for EDC members or council members due to perceptions that the public funds are being used to benefit a few favorites. All the continued secrecy does nothing to dispel these perceptions.